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Pinpointing the fuzzy demand for soft skills


Every employer wants workers with the so-called “soft skills”—but which skills they actually mean by that term may not be so obvious.

When people talk about technical skills in education, it’s usually pretty clear which skills are needed, how they can be taught, and who is responsible for teaching them. Soft skills, on the other hand, are often viewed as a one-size-fits-all skill set that students should pick up as part of their overall education. We assume that these skills are the same for everybody.

But that’s not entirely true. A Burning Glass analysis of the soft or “baseline” skills employers demand in job postings shows that, while some are universal (like communication skills, writing, or organizational skills), the importance employers place on others depends considerably on the type of work the position entails. You can see the pattern in this chart, which compares how often a baseline skill is requested in job postings with its objective importance based on the government’s O*NET occupational profiles:

When an employer emphasizes a skill in job ads in a way that’s out of proportion to its actual importance to the job, that’s a sign that the skill is hard to find. That is, employers tend to “over-emphasize” the skills they value but which they cannot be assured of finding. Those perceived baseline skills gaps change based on the career—but, interestingly, they often involve skills that are not part of the core definition of the job or that fall outside the scope of traditional training programs.

For example, basic math and computer literacy are emphasized in fields like hospitality, personal care, and manufacturing. While those are far from STEM jobs, workers in these fields will need to deal with computer systems (such as hotel reservation systems) and basic computation.

IT employers, by contrast, are more likely to emphasize customer service, leadership skills, or writing—none of which are a focus of computer science programs. On the other hand, you don’t see these skills emphasized much at all in engineering job postings. Employers assume that anyone who’s been through an engineering program already has these skills.

This pattern poses a challenge to educators: who is responsible for ensuring that students have the right balance of soft and hard skills for their career? Should the Computer Science department build customer service into their program? Or does this have implications for what should be included in general education requirements? Alternatively, are there ways for institutions to point students to online learning resources that can help them bolster the skills they acquire in their degree program with the additional skills needed in their careers?

In any event, it’s clear that students are not really prepared for a career unless they have both soft and hard skills. Soft skills matter—and they have to be attuned to a student’s career path just as much as technical knowledge.

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